By RUSS OLIVO
WOONSOCKET — Marlene Gagnon shoves her hand deep into a rack of multi-colored clothing and yanks out a long, white gown of slippery sateen fabric with a ribbon of hieroglyphic-like imagery running up the back.
“That’s Cleopatra,” she says.
But the Queen of the Nile, or at least her costume, isn’t alone. Not far away there’s Dorothy’s checkered farmgirl dress, straight from the Yellow Brick Road, and the woodsy duds of Robin Hood, fresh from Sherwood Forest. Brando could have found a pin-stripe and fedora fit for “The Godfather” and if he needed some period-authentic arm candy to show around town he could have picked up a nice, grape-colored flapper dress for her, replete with endless bands of shimmy-shaking frill.
We have, of course, arrived at Harlequins Costumes, a kind of overstuffed fantasy closet where ordinary people whose lives may not include a character arc have been transforming themselves into temporary heroes and femmes both fatale and glamorous for 27 years.
But it’s all over now.
Faced with increasing competition from the big box stores and a growing legion of e-merchants, Gagnon is shutting the doors of her costume-rental business at 95 Main St. for good on Monday.
“The business was good when I started it,” says Gagnon, a Woonsocket native who lives in Cumberland now. “You couldn’t really buy an adult costume unless you made it.
“We had a lot of good years, but I would say maybe during the last four or five, it started to decline. I think the internet really hurt us.”
Of course, the store’s always been busy in the weeks leading up to Halloween, but the bulk of Harlequins’ business has always revolved around the theater, one of Gagnon’s passions.
Anyone that’s ever looked at the getups and disguises that pop up in the chain stores and pharmacies around the holidays has a good sense of the state of the costume art. It’s mostly made-in-China stuff with an assembly-line, plastic feel, cheapies fit for the trash after a night of trick-or-treating or playing the Easter Bunny.
But that never was Harlequins’ stock in trade. Theirs are hand-crafted costumes made with the finest materials, designed and sewn by a loyal band of seamstresses who have quietly worked behind-the-scenes to fill Harlequins with an endless tapestry of saints and sinners, heroes and villains. Yes, it’s the finery of stagecraft and make-believe, but it has the feel of, well, high-end apparel.
Brush your hand past a rack of costumes and you’ll feel the plush and spongy texture of velvet or the liquid slither of silk. You’ll see the glitter of gold lame and the delicate lightness of taffeta.
“I remember,” says Gagnon, “buying fabric for 59 cents a yard.”
But making and renting the costumes wasn’t the hard part.
“Every time you rent out a costume and it comes back to the store it has to be dry-cleaned,” says Gagnon. “Buttons pop off. Seams split. They have to be maintained. That’s the hard part of the business.”
A costume is nothing if the details aren’t right, and Gagnon supplied those, too. Wigs, stick-on mustaches, even “nose putty” for building up just the right Wicked-Witch-of-the-West hook or W.C. Fields bulb.
Too thick around the middle for the standard wench costume? No problem.
“Here’s the fat wench,” she says, proudly displaying the tent-like garb.
A refugee from the real estate business, Gagnon arrived on Main Street in an era when downtown was still a place where you could find a fully-stocked men’s clothier, not one, but two furniture stores, and a family-owned hardware store. Today, the ramshackle, rambling office building where she still rents a cubicle of space for a few hundred dollars a month has at least two vacant storefronts and a couple of merchants who deal in second-hand goods, a place where the heating system seems like it’s down for repairs as often as it’s running.
Gagnon warmed things up by making the store a social venue for her friends, who kept her company with convivial chit-chat while she waited for customers. The lady pals seem more nervous about her departure than she is, wondering where they’ll catch up on the local gossip after she’s gone, says Gagnon.
Up until about a month ago, perhaps a thousand costumes were squeezed into the little shop, but there’s plenty of space now. Gagnon has sold or given away hundreds to theatre groups, municipal recreation departments in Cumberland and Johnston, and small church groups that work with children.
By Tuesday, she says, they’ll all be gone, fat wench, skinny wench and in-between. No more Austin Powers and poodle skirts. Even Devil Pimp, the baddest-looking Satan of the streets this side of the tracks, will be gone. Where they’ll end up, Gagnon isn’t sure just yet, but they have to be gone, because Tuesday is the first of the month, and she has to vacate the store by then.
She’ll be unemployed, by choice, for the first time in decades, but she won’t be idle. Gagnon is secretary treasurer of the Northern Rhode Island Council on the Arts, the chief organizer of the annual Mardi Gras and the French Heritage Festival, and that’s a full-time job in itself, she says. She’ll have coffee with her costume-shop chums a couple of times a week and spend more time with her grandchildren in Boston.
But it will never be easy leaving her fantasy friends behind.
“It’s going to be very different,” she says. “It’s going to be sad.”